Auto-Biography: Bus We Must – My Short Career With Iowa City Transit

It was the mother of all drifts. Forty feet behind me, the back of Iowa City Transit bus #13  was coming around fast, threatening to wipe out a block’s worth of cars parked across the street. By the time I caught the first slide, I had overcompensated: now the rear was hanging out the other side. My arms were a whirling dervish on the giant steering wheel, flying back and forth, until the bus straightened out. No need to stop for coffee; I was wide awake on a triple-shot of adrenaline.

Iowa City Transit #13 – the very bus I was driving that icy morning image: bustalk

I was always on the lookout for creative ways to entertain myself on pre-dawn (empty) bus runs, but this one totally caught me off-guard. At the north end of Clinton street, midway through the corner unto Church, the pavement changed from asphalt to smooth old brick cobblestones. As I exited the corner, I floored it, as always. An imperceptibly-thin sheen of frost on the old bricks provided no resistance to the 8V-71 Detroit Diesel out back. By the time I realized what was happening and reacted, the rear end was chasing the front. All my wintertime Corvair-drifting experience finally paid off.

I had always wanted to drive a bus, and I had started preparing early. Aged five, my favorite toy was a highly-detailed toy bus. I would lie on the floor for hours, gazing through the windows and sunroof, imagining all my (future) passengers and the adventures I would take them on and slinging them around sideways on the polished hardwood floor.

In Austria then, the legendary yellow and black Steyr 380 Post-buses were the vital transport link between the villages clinging to the Alpine mountainsides. They were rounded, with a graceful hood out front. The versions that served the really scenic routes had lots of glass, curving right up into the roof, which had a giant fabric sunroof. On sunny days, the driver rolled it back like sardine can lid, revealing the Alpine scenery in its full splendor.

It’s one of my most joyful childhood memories: sitting on a tan leather seat right behind the driver, watching him shift the gears and navigate the throbbing 85 hp Steyr diesel through the blind hair-pin curves, announcing his presence (and right of way) with the iconic four-tone melodic horn: taatooo-taataaa, which mimicked the old hand-blown horns that announced postal carriages of yore.

One day in the fall of 1975, I woke up and decided to fulfill my childhood dream– even if there were no alpine hairpin curves in Iowa City. I got the job though my usual technique: pestering. I showed up at the transit company’s office practically every other day. Within three weeks, I was behind the wheel.

I’d driven big trucks, but piloting my first bus felt a bit strange the first time out on a training run. I sat right up against the giant bulging front window of a GMC “new look” bus. It was like staring out a living-room picture window of a mobile home. The only major surprise: the steering was unassisted and, therefore, profoundly slow, as I learned that hair-raising morning.

Iowa City Transit was a very efficient and heavily-used transit system, especially for such a small city. But that was only after it became a publicly-owned system and bought twelve new GM buses in 1971. Prior to that, it had been a typical private system that had been in decline since the forties, and was dependent on a subsidy to keep bumping along.

It had an elderly fleet of GM buses like this one, a TGH3101. It looks just like the bigger GM transit buses, but these were designed for less-intense use in smaller towns, and had a 270 inch GMC truck six cylinder gasoline engine and Hydramatic transmission (instead of the DD diesel and Allison V-Drive). We used to ride them into downtown on Saturday mornings when we were too lazy to walk or ride our bikes, and I vividly remember the jerky shifts that came so quickly one after the next and the relatively quiet and smoothly purring gas engine.

After the federal government created the Urban Mass Transit Authority (UMTA), grants were available to public entities to purchase new equipment with which to relaunch and expand bus transit services. One day in 1971, I suddenly heard the distinctive loud bellowing of Detroit Diesel engines bouncing off the walls downtown, disturbing the quiet summer morning in Iowa City. A few minutes later, I saw the first of a fleet of new red buses being tried out. A seed was planted.

There were twelve shiny new 35′ GM T6H4521A buses, serving twelve routes that covered the city very effectively. They all converged at this downtown corner of Clinton and Washington street every half hour, for transfers. Iowa City Transit had one of the highest passenger-per-mile utilization rates in the country; the buses during rush hour were always standing room only, sometimes so utterly so that folks were crammed in right around me at the front, especially those routes heading to the University and the UI Medical center.

In 1974, the year before I drove for them, the system bought two new GM T8H5307A buses (No. 13 & 14), which were the full forty foot in length and 102″ wide. They could only be used on certain high capacity routes, being too big for the older residential area corners. They also had one very nice touch: a throttle pedal operated by the bus’ high pressure air system; shall we call it “power accelerator pedal” or “drive by air”? The mechanical linkages on the other buses had lots of friction, and were hard on the knees, especially since full throttle was SOP until the bus got up to speed. Still had manual steering, though. That kept our upper-bodies well worked, especially if one hustled through corners.

thanks to the internet, I’m reunited with the very buses I once drovegood old #6, one of my regulars

Yes,I took my schedule very seriously. I treated bus-driving as a time-trial rally and drove…briskly; which resulted in one or two complaints from old ladies. You do want to get to the mall exactly at 10:47, don’t you?

But as a bus driver in a university town, I generally got few complaints. Some of my youthful passengers actually egged me on. There’s nothing like a little group-hooning to evoke a little winter-morning cheer before classes.

During a particularly heavy snow-storm, I drove like a fiend to stay on schedule. My passengers were not going to get home late. I eventually caught up with the bus that was supposed to be twenty minutes ahead of me. As I passed my less committed colleague, a spontaneous cheer erupted from the back of the bus.

Tooling around town in the bus was generally a relaxed affair, with a few notable exceptions. I was relief-driving, and momentarily forgot which route I was on that day, and started heading the wrong way. Rather than finding a suitably enormous space in which to turn the big bus around, or make a lengthy detour, I took a direct shortcut through a several-block-long weedy lot. It turned out to be much rougher than I’d expected.

The old ladies heading to the mall were flabbergasted (and jostled) by our little off-road busing adventure. Worse, the bus almost bogged down in the the uneven surface. If I had gotten stuck, I would have been on the news that evening. And out of a job. Or maybe not. It was a pretty relaxed operation then; no uniforms even. Got to know the regulars, and would stop in front of their houses.

Another time, the bus’ long throttle linkage suddenly stuck wide open – exactly the block that ended in the high school parking lot on the one Saturday of the year of the school’s annual carnival fund-raiser. It was another one of those “this can’t be real; someone working on a bad Hollywood movie script must have written this moment.” Of course, I knew exactly what to do: turn the engine switch to “Off”; bring it to a stop, and go knock on a door to ask to use their phone. At least my steering wheel never came off. Do you ever have dreams about that happening? I do. It’s why I always carry vise-grips on me. I’m guessing this guy has power steering on his bus.

There were other adrenaline-inducing moments: nothing like sliding down a hill and across an intersection in a full bus, front wheels locked and surfing on a mat of wet, greasy leaves. And plenty of other snow and ice follies that winter; some innocent; others not so much.

But spring arrived, and wanderlust struck again. I had been doing this for several months now, some kind of record for me. But I knew it had to end, somehow. One morning, heading to an office park out by I-80, I was ready to make my breakout. So I made an announcement to my passengers that the bus had been hijacked to California. Some chuckled. One or two cheered me on, shouting “do it.”

But a glance in the mirror showed that there were plenty of icy stares. Sensing a collective failure of enthusiasm, I reluctantly abandoned my plan, and drove them to their waiting cubicles. Geez; you folks have no sense of adventure…”honey, you’ll never guess what happened on the way to work this morning…I won’t be coming home tonight…I’ll be back in a few weeks….I’m having a great time…tell the kids I love them..

California dreamin’, for real

If I couldn’t drive a bus with forty passengers to California, I did the next best thing: I quit, and bought my own little private bus, a somewhat-battered 1968 Dodge A100 van ( I know, it really should have been a Greenbrier, which even looks like its bigger GM brothers, but I was in a hurry). I paneled the inside with birch plywood, built a bed in the back and cut in some sliding windows. Only one passenger signed-on for the one-way trip to sunny California. But she had plenty of enthusiasm; even made the curtains for it. That was fare enough.